“From the beginning to the end, I wouldn’t change a thing. I did it my way and it went how I wanted it to go.”
After 22 years in professional football, Adebayo Akinfenwa has brought the curtain down on a career that blossomed against the odds.
The 17-stone striker might not look like the typical footballer, but he has certainly made his mark on the game, with three promotions, 221 goals and 755 appearances across all three EFL divisions.
And having been ‘unapologetically himself’, Akinfenwa has used a combination of the EFL’s platform and his unique character to transcend the sport, with over 2.5 million followers across social media platforms Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.
“I never set out to be different, I just set out to be myself and I will never apologise for being who I am,” he reveals. “I always say that energy is contagious. Whatever energy you give out, I’d like to think is what you get back.
“Life is stressful at the best of times, so you’ve got to set aside some time to entertain. If I’ve got the time, I will give it and that’s something I’ve always done.
“The attention I get, I think it’s mind-boggling. I get contacted by people all over the world, from places I’ve never been. I’ll be with people who I’ve looked up to in the game, who have played at the very top, and they try to get a photo with me.
“The love and appreciation I’ve had has been humbling – I’m honoured.”
🔜 The last dance under the arch 💙— EFL (@EFL) May 10, 2022
Happy birthday @daRealAkinfenwa - see you at Wembley 👊#EFLPlayOffs | #StepUp pic.twitter.com/2u6XDQyi3Q
Akinfenwa’s gregarious and charismatic personality has turned him into a cult hero with fans young and old across the globe.
Wycombe Wanderers’ Mascot Coordinator, Elaine Cooper, noted: “Every kid always says their favourite player is Bayo. He spends time with them and he makes their year. They’re the future of the Club and that’s why he was important to this Club.”
Akinfenwa admits that those connections are what he will treasure the most from his playing days.
“The connections that I’ve made and the energy that I’ve felt, nobody can take that away, no matter what opinion somebody has,” he declares. “I’ve made memories that can last a lifetime and you can’t beat that.
“Don’t get it twisted, I wanted to win every game and, of course, it’s nice to get accolades for what you’ve done, but there’s nothing more powerful than connections.”
While playing for 19 seasons in the EFL, the self-proclaimed ‘Beast’ was able to build a worldwide brand, developing a successful clothing label, creating YouTube content to an audience of nearly 300,000 subscribers and releasing his own autobiography.
The 40-year-old explains: “We are a changing society. Back in the day, a lot of players just wanted to play golf or chill out, but now, players have more opportunities to pursue.
“I’ve been very lucky to be able to experience other elements alongside football. It’s such an easy thing to say, ‘just concentrate on football’, but you need to have a balanced mind and it’s good to be able to switch off at times because you can get stuck in your own head.
“I’ve never let anything prevent me from giving my very best on a matchday and that’s all that matters. Now, at the end of my career, I’ve got some presenting work and there’s some acting and mentoring stuff in the pipeline, so there’s a few things out there that I’m looking forward to trying my hand at.”
Another interest that Akinfenwa has made no secret of is his love for the gym. Capable of bench pressing 200kg, the larger-than-life personality has been vocal about his desire to be known as the strongest man in football.
And he received that validation via the videogame series FIFA, being crowned as the strongest player in every edition of the game since FIFA 12.
“I didn’t realise how big the FIFA community was,” he admits. “It coincided with the boom for social media and YouTubers and things just went viral around the world.
“I spoke to EA Sports about how much these stats mean to players. Recognition is not the be all and end all, because as long as you’re comfortable with yourself, that’s all that matters, but I enjoy the gym and when you receive acknowledgement for something that you put time and work into, it’s a nice feeling.
“I wasn’t sugar-coating it; nobody outworks me in the gym. If somebody did, that would push me even more. I was proud of being number one and nobody could take me off my throne.”
As one of the FIFA franchise’s most beloved players, EA Sports rewarded Akinfenwa with a special ‘End of an Era’ card on FIFA 22’s Ultimate Team game mode – something normally reserved for superstars playing at the elite level.
It marks a fitting end to an incredible story for a man once described as ‘too big for football’.
“They were generous on a few of the stats, but it was an honour,” he jokes. “This game is global, it’s worldwide and not every player gets a special card – generally, it only goes to the best of the best.
“I’ve played in the EFL my whole career, so I’m humbled because I know the people that have got one in the past and they’re the crème de la crème.”
Such is the ever-popular Akinfenwa’s appeal, every step of his final season has been captured by TV cameras for an upcoming Amazon documentary.
And he came ever so close to delivering the blockbuster ending, with his final outing coming at Wembley Stadium for the Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final.
Despite a lively cameo off the bench, the veteran target man was unable to inspire Wycombe to glory, with Sunderland securing a 2-0 win.
💪 A message from the @daRealAkinfenwa after his last dance 💙#EFLPlayOffs | #StepUp | @wwfcofficial pic.twitter.com/ebYWgoKQ5G— EFL (@EFL) May 21, 2022
“It’s every boy’s dream to play at Wembley, especially growing up in London,” says Akinfenwa. “Wembley is the pinnacle – it’s the National Stadium.
“For that to be my last game, I couldn’t have scripted it. Obviously, if I had’ve scripted it, we would’ve won! But my last kick of a ball was at Wembley, so I’m blessed.”
The disappointment of that defeat won’t overshadow his extraordinary journey with the Chairboys.
Back in May 2016, a 34-year-old Akinfenwa was ‘technically unemployed’ after scoring a penalty under the famous arch to send AFC Wimbledon to Sky Bet League One via the Play-Offs, and famously pleaded in his post-match interview for Managers to ‘hit me up on WhatsApp’.
Very few could’ve predicted the path that would follow, including the man himself.
“I never would’ve expected the journey I’ve been on at Wycombe,” he admits. “I remember saying to the gaffer when I signed, I thought I’d play two more years. I didn’t think I’d be playing at 40!
“I was very driven at that time – not to prove anybody else wrong, but to prove myself right. I still felt like I had something to give, so when I came to Wycombe, I was determined to show that I could still do it.
“To think that six years on, we’ve had two promotions and were so close to a third, I wouldn’t have expected that in my peak, let alone at the twilight of my career.”
Having previously played for 10 EFL Clubs in 13 years, Akinfenwa described himself and Wycombe as a ‘match made in heaven’, leading to a six-year stint at Adams Park – the longest he has spent at any team in a career spanning more than two decades.
In that time, he developed a close bond with long-serving boss Gareth Ainsworth.
Akinfenwa says: “If you were to look at my frame, you probably wouldn’t think I’m a footballer. When you look at the gaffer – with his cowboy boots, his leather jacket and his shirt open in the winter – people may say he doesn’t fit that typical look of a manager. We just clicked.
“He’s authentic and doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He created a no blame culture and he’s the first to say that if something doesn’t work, it’s on him, and if it does work, it’s on us.
“The team embodies the way that he is, promoting uniqueness and togetherness. He said it and I’ll repeatit, ‘football brought us together, but life will keep us together’. The Club is built in his image, so with that in mind, it’s been a match made in heaven.”
The vastly experienced frontman has certainly come a long way from humble beginnings.
After failing to make the grade as a teenager in England, Akinfenwa looked abroad for opportunities, winning trophies in Lithuania and Wales before finally earning his chance in the EFL with Boston United in 2003.
“Everybody’s got a story,” he adds. “I wasn’t getting a look in over here, so I had to go elsewhere, which is when I went to Lithuania. It mentally strengthened me over there.
“It took a while to feel like I could hold my own in the Football League. I had a month at Boston, a month at Leyton Orient, three months at Rushden & Diamonds... it was like I was constantly starting again.
“Finally, I got the break at Doncaster. They were going for promotion and I replaced the striker that had played there all season, so that was a moment that gave me real impetus. Then I went on to Torquay for my first full season and the rest is history.”
After scoring 16 goals in 41 matches in all competitions during a breakout campaign, Akinfenwa made the switch to Swansea City, where he gained his first taste of silverware in the EFL.
He recalls: “Swansea was my first experience of a massive Club – it was my education and the point where I was just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I could.
“My strike partner was Lee Trundle, and I watched how he dealt with defenders, how he dealt with expectation, how he dealt with the other fans and how he played with an enjoyment and a smile.
“Kevin Austin, rest in peace, was my castle. I wanted to be like him – the way he got respect, the way he found the balance between being a senior player and then being able to hang with the younger boys.
“Our team was full of ballers. I played in the LDV Vans Trophy Final against Carlisle at the Millennium Stadium and I scored the winner. It was amazing; when we picked up the trophy and I heard the noise of the crowd, I was like, ‘this is it, this is football’.
“A few weeks later, we were back again for the Play-Off Final. We were one game away from the Championship and it suddenly felt like everything was easy. But then I missed a penalty in the shoot-out, we lost the game and the next chance I got to get to the Championship was 15 years later when I was 38 – that’s football!”
It may have taken longer than he thought, but a season in the second tier finally came during the 2020/21 campaign with Wycombe.
“On a personal note, it was a landmark achievement for me,” he says. “It was bittersweet because there were no fans in stadiums and I don’t think I got to attack it in the way that I wanted because I was hurting, but I was just happy to be there.
“After a while, I was thinking I was going to go the whole season without scoring, which has never happened to me before. To score on the final day, in the final minute, and the fact it got us a win, that was incredible.
“That’s one of my favourite moments because of how happy everybody was for me. That will stay with me forever.”
Alongside that stoppage-time penalty against Bristol City, Akinfenwa lists his one and only professional hat-trick – for Northampton Town against Accrington Stanley in November 2012 – as another highlight moment, as well as his FA Cup outing against his beloved Liverpool and scoring at Wembley Stadium.
But one accomplishment stands out above the rest for the evergreen striker.
“My greatest achievement was becoming a professional footballer,” he states. “At the age of six or seven, I told my parents and my brother that I want to be, and I’m going to be, a professional footballer. To actually do it, that is the greatest achievement and everything else has been a bonus.”
Having experienced so much over the years, Akinfenwa has made it a priority of his to pass on the insight he has gained to younger players.
“The young players are the next generation, so I think it’s imperative to guide them,” he confesses. “We’ve got some talented youngsters in the game, so I try to pass on messages that I wish I’d had.
“I try to say to just be comfortable with who you are. When you’re young, you go into a dressing room feeling like you have to impress everybody. When you get older, that shifts to just trying to do your best. If you’re going in to do your best in anything you’re attempting, you can look at yourself in the mirror and be satisfied with that. That’s the power of experience.”
Although his playing career is now over, it’s inevitable that we’ve not seen the last of Adebayo Akinfenwa, whether it’s in a sporting capacity, on the big screen or anything else he decides to pursue.
One thing is for sure, he has shown that there are no limitations to what a player in the EFL can achieve.
He concludes: “It’s a beautiful feeling to have this connection with everybody that’s supported me and shown me love. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.